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    The Educational Theories from Four Philosophical Movements

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    “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically”, said Martin Luther King. From the Latin etymology to “draw out”, education and the philosophy of education have evolved jointly depending on social and cultural contexts. Every nation has its own system which includes different aims and methods of teaching based on various theories. Education is a crucial topic that has been examined since antiquity: many theories were drawn from those reflections (Murphy, 2004). In this literature review, we will see how classical philosophical theories about education are equally relevant today in the society as they were when they were written. This paper will examine educational theories from four philosophical movements ranging from idealism to more recent ones such as pragmatism and existentialism.


    Plato is one of the oldest philosophers who discussed idealism in details. As a result of his doctrine, he described universals and forms as applied in this theory (Natorp, 2004). He supposed that truth can only be accomplished by thought. It is a philosophical approach that centres its tenet in the idea that the reality of the truth is the only thing that a person is worth to know (Breed, 1942). During the search for truth, the focus of the theory is on the reasoning conscious in mind. Plato exposed the idea in 400 BC where he wrote a book arguing the existence of two worlds. The first world is the mental or spiritual referred as permanent, eternal and universal (Barrow, 2012). The other world is that of appearance felt through our five senses that are imperfect, fluctuating and jumbled. The dissection of worlds is known as duality of body and mind.

    In Plato’s cave allegory, the sensory shadows of the world are overcome with light universal reasons or truth. Hence, to understand the truth, one needs to pursue identity and knowledge with an absolute mind. He also believed that the formation of the soul is before birth and is usually perfect with the universal being. The process of birth considers perfection with the education requirements of forwarding latent ideas to conscious nature (Carr 1991).

    In idealism, the main education objective is to discover and develop the ability of each and their moral excellence in bettering and serving the society (Natorp 2004). The emphasis of the curriculum focuses on the mind matters of history, literature, religion and philosophy: these subjects actively develop critical and abstract thinking. The methods of teaching focus on ideas handling through discussions and Socratic dialogue. Intuitions, introspection and the logic of whole-part are essential in bringing both concepts and forms to consciousness which are latent in mind (Carr, 1991).

    Idealism is also relevant in today’s education sector as it pervades creations, and is a universal, underlying and ultimate force which tests the overall matter and mind. The theory lays extra prominence on the principles and aims of instruction than on its devices, aids and models (Christodoulou, 2014).

    Exhalation of personality or self-realization – Concerning the idealism notion, man is considered the best among all God’s creations. Self-realization exhibited by the theory involves knowledge of the self. Per Christodoulou (2014) the theory is relevant today through self-realization of individuals and personality. Ensures spiritual development – The theory gives importance to the values of spiritual growth in comparison to the attainments of materials. The theory emphasizes on the development of morals, mental and spiritual growth of the child as well as his values (Lawton & Gordon 2002). Development of rationality and intelligence – Broundy (1961) argues that idealism is essentially focused in the development of rationality and intelligence which are critical in ensuring that individuals gain knowledge on various aspects as well as being rational.

    Idealism is vital today in the education sector: it ensures that individuals have complete ideas and knowledge on various issues (Curren, 2007). Nevertheless, the lack of emphasis on the physical world in idealism deprives the learners to gain knowledge about their environment. Spinoza, Curley and Hampshire (2005) argue that Nature is the ultimate transcendental truth: this can justify why curricula nowadays enclose subjects such as biology and physics that study nature’s laws. In response to this movement centred on the human mind, a movement surfaced giving more importance to the physical aspects in life: realism.


    Realists hold the belief that reality exists on the independence of the human mind. Per them, the reality exists in the ultimate world of physical objects. The focus of the theory is based on objects or body. Aristotle, who was a student of Plato, came up with realism philosophy (Greeno, 2006). The aim of realism is to understand the reality objective through unsparing scrutiny and diligence of all the observed data. He believed that to understand an object, there is need to first understand its form that never changes. Aristotle was the foremost to highlight logic as a discipline and to encourage reasoning out on physical aspects and events.

    The course of realists lays emphasis on the subject matter of physical biosphere which is particularly Mathematics and science (Curren, 2007). The instruction techniques focus on the mastery of facts and core competencies of recitation and demonstration. Students are required to demonstrate their ability to think critically using experimentation and observation. Aristotle emphasised that the curriculum needs be standardised and scientifically approached. The character, in theory, is developed as a result of training using the conduct rules (Broundy, 1961).

    Realism theory is quite relevant today compared to when it was written. One of its relevance is the aim of education that focuses on teaching the truth to help individuals understand present practical life. Per Curren (1999), realism’s purpose as exhibited in social realists is to prepare individuals for the world. Realism also recognises the child as a unit: the child needs to be given freedom to think, which is important in education (Lawton & Gordon 2002). The child has desires, moods, and power which cannot be overlooked.

    The theory also emphasizes the need for teachers in the education setup because teachers are a guide to what students are doing. This is relevant today as they are supposed to operate as guides to students. Realism emphasizes that there is an existence of the real world and the responsibility of teachers is to introduce the students to it (White & Nicholas 1976). This idea is applicable nowadays as they introduce a subject matter to the students through demonstrations and sensory experiences. Both students and teachers are referred to as hearers, but as learners view the sphere with innocent eyes, teachers should be able to explain to them from the sophisticated vantage point of the teacher’s understanding.

    Due to this, teachers own personality and biases which need to be muted (Darling, 1994). To give the student information that is accurate as well as effective and timely, the realist advocated for the use of machines to teach so that they can remove the teachers’ bias from the factual representation. The machines are today used in education to ensure that the student can be taught using formulas that give a universal answer in devices like calculators.

    Realism is also relevant today through its emphasis on the curriculum: it states that the classical literature needs to be studied but not for studying its styles and form but for its ideas and content (Catherine, 2009).


    The American psychologist John Dewey created educational pragmatism, which represents various forms of idealism. Pragmatists state that a group of people conditions the thinking of an individual’s mind. Pragmatism emerged from Dewey writing through his belief that the usage of experiment was the best approach used in educating the mind (Dewey, Hickman and Alexander 1998). The theory focuses on the experience of the real life as its main source of education and knowledge (Sandra, 2011). Pragmatism is a scheme of alterable truth which argues that the notions are factual as they are important in various situations. The idea is based on the truth that if the situation can work today, it does not indicate that it will work tomorrow. The moral standards of truth in theory is emphasized as expediency. McPherren (2013) explains that per pragmatists, what is experimented to be true works for society through good public promotion.

    Pragmatism calls for oneself sacrifice to attain people’s end. In such situations, the individuals can pass their moral judgment on individuals. Consequences measure the social policies rather than the abstraction of principles on what is just or right. There are no set rules or logic but only proposals and policies for the collective action that needs to be regarded as a notion of working. The consequence skill indicates the need for altering or keeping the original hypotheses.

    The thinking of others usually conditions the mind of a human being. The goal of the thought is situation reconstruction to solve any arising problem. If a proposal can solve a problem when implemented, then the idea used in resolving the problem is truly pragmatic. Truth cannot be identified in action advance, as one should think then act to determine the reality. The judgment value is made in accordance to the feeling desires. The value judgments are not completed, instrumental making them corrigible.

    Dewey was concerned with the democratic realization and ideal in life. Child-centred instead of subject-centred education treats learners as beings and focuses on experimental and discrete projects (Allan, 2002). He emphasized that both the students and educator need to be tentative and flexible. The main objective of school is fostering consciousness which is relevant up to now: the child needs to be taught assimilation of facts and truth. A disregard for knowledge and reason is pooled with the practice of collectivism and altruism (Donald, 2012).

    Dewey and pragmatists view the separation of children from their academic work as a result of the interest of the student and that of the school. This is relevant today as in some systems, students are also given some time to spend in trying to explore their talents (Santer, Griffi, and Goodall, 2008). Pragmatic theory highlights that life adjustments and social values are as important than the skills acquired from academic work. The theory explains that the moral lessons and subject matter in traditional curricula are meant to inspire and teach through irrelevant experience of immediate action by students (Iakovos, 2008).

    Inconsistency between real interests of the students and those of school alienate student from their work in school. Gredler and Plowden (1972) explain that school age children got themselves entangled in the midst of conflicting forces of the untrained beings and aims of the matter which is constructed by mature adults. This is relevant since children nowadays need to be given time to practice their talents and avoid any conflict between the school work and talent.


    The nature of existentialists’ actuality is idiosyncratic and lies on the person. In his famous quote: “Existence precedes essence” (Sartre and Mairet 1977 p. 26) the French philosopher argued that existence is first before the definition of what we are. The corporeal world does not have any other significance of inherent rather than that of human existence. The theory focuses on the individual standards and choice rather than the external standards since they are central. Individuals are defined depending on their existence relationship depending on the choices we make. The theory states that people should not accept philosophical system predetermination. Bailey et al. (2010) explain that instead, individuals should take responsibility for the decision of who they are.

    The theory mainly focuses on freedom of individuals, authentic development. The theory, which became popular after World War II, states that individuals need to recognize life finiteness on the fragile and small planet rather than salvation. Existentialists from America focus more on the potential of the human and personal quest for meaning (Robertson, 2009).

    The theory is relevant in education from the time it was written as its subject matter focuses on the personal choice. Teachers should view individuals as the entity of a social context where learners need to confront each other in classification. Development of character emphasizes the responsibility of individual decisions. Existentialists opposed the student view as the subject that is measurable, standardized and tracked. The theory is also important in the experience of education as it focuses on the creation of opportunities for self- actualization and direction (Bransford et al. 2006).

    In conclusion, the arguments presented in the four classical theories are still relevant nowadays despite being written centuries ago. The philosophers cover ideas that are part of the current education systems: idealists value self-realization (Christodoulou, 2014) and the development of critical thinking through Socratic dialogue. Realists, on the other hand, emphasise sciences and demonstrations (Curren, 2007). Pragmatism has allowed today’s children to have some time to explore their talents (Santer, Griffi, and Goodall, 2008) while existentialism has given them opportunities for self-actualization (Bransford et al, 2006).

    However, this paper has its limitations: only four theories could be examined, narrowing the scope, and leaving aside some that may not exhibit such relevance today. It is, therefore, accurate to conclude that the four classical philosophical theories about education covered played a crucial role in building today’s education systems.

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